Monday Matters (October 26, 2020)

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:1,2
 
 
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 
Ephesians 3:16, 17
 
 
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly.
Ephesians 4:14-16
 
 
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
II Peter 3:18

Wise guides

As I think about what it means to put faith to work in the world (the theme of these Monday messages), I’m grateful for the wisdom of several guides in my life.

Richard Rohr, in his book, The Wisdom Pattern, makes the point that “education is not the same as transformation.” Too often mainline churches have thought that the answer to going deeper in the spiritual life is to learn more stuff. Rohr suggests that while education matters, the goal of the spiritual life is not simply consumption of educational resources but the experience of soulful transformation. How will we be changed? How has transformation been part of your spiritual experience?

Dwight Zscheile, an Episcopal priest who teaches at Luther Seminary, wrote a book called “People of the Way.” In the introduction he asks about the difference between being a church member and being a disciple. Are they the same thing? What do you think? It can be tempting to think about membership as arrival.  “I’m in and close the door behind me.”A disciple is by definition a work in progress, someone on the move, open to learning, open to others, open to transformation.

A related thought from Brian McLaren, a question to which I often return: “Is the church a club for the spiritually elite who pretend to have arrived, or a school for disciples who are still on the way?” Don’t get me wrong. Clubs are great. But there is more.

Dawn Davis, a priest in the church of Canada and creator of the Revive program, speaks about the need to explore the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. She says it’s like the difference between reading a recipe and enjoying a meal.

Soren Kierkegaard framed the question in terms of worship, describing worship as a drama. He said that in the liturgy, the congregation are the actors and God is the audience. For too long, I have thought of gatherings for worship as being performances, a spectator sport. As clergy, I better be at the top of my game or the congregation (the audience) won’t clap. I love a good drama, but the spiritual life is one in which we all play a part.

These related thoughts from wise guides have been on my mind, as I think about my own spiritual journey and wonder about recent reports of decline in the church in our culture. For me, the hope is the promise of transformation. These thoughts are especially brought to mind as we navigate a season of considerable coincident crises (health, economic, environmental, racial), exacerbated by the anxiety of an impending election. I’ve seen plenty of news. I know a gracious plenty about issues and candidates. What I now need is the experience of trust that will make a difference, that will offer equanimity and hope, peace and tranquility, grace and lovingkindness in choppy waters.

That frame of mind comes not simply with knowing stuff about God, as important as that is. It comes in a relationship with God, known to us in Christ who stood up in the stern of the boat, in the midst of the storm and said “peace be still.” In my work with congregations, I’m grateful for so many wise guides with whom I’ve spoken, asking about their own spiritual experience. When I ask what has been transformative for them, what has helped them grow spiritually, the most common answer I get is crisis, challenge, difficulty, choppy waters. In those moments, we come to know our need of God. We’re in choppy waters right now. That’s precisely where God in Christ likes to go to work.

Starting tomorrow, the office of the Presiding Bishop and Forward Movement offer nine days: A season of prayer for an election. Learn more at www.forwardmovement.org/election.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

Monday Matters (October 19, 2020)

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Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.
I Peter 3:15 (New Revised Standard Version)
 
 
Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. 
I Peter 3:15 (The Message)
 
 
Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.
I Peter 3:15 (King James Version)
 
 
Christianity, for many, has come to mean anti-intellectual, fanatically narrow-minded people. Christianity, for some, is neither faith nor reason – just reactive tribalism hiding behind the skirts of Mother Church…I move in some circles where the word Christian means he knows nothing about history, nothing about politics and is probably incapable of civil conversation about anything. Five Bible quotes are the available answers to everything. How did we ever get to this low point after developing such a tradition of wisdom? How did we ever regress to such arrogance after the humble folly of the cross?
-Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern

What we’re for

People more easily define themselves by what they are against, by what they hate, by who else is wrong, instead of by what they believe in and whom they love.

-Richard Rohr

A friend told me about a conversation with a parishioner, part of discussions about spiritual growth and their own experiences of faith. As they talked, this parishioner told my friend: “I prefer to self-identify as Episcopalian, not Christian.” I wished for the opportunity to explore that statement with this parishioner, to hear her story, to share my understanding that our Anglican tradition is deeply rooted in the story of Jesus, i.e, unavoidably Christian. But I also had a sense of what she might have meant. In our culture, word association with the word “Christian” does not always suggest good news. People think that word denotes judgmentalism, hypocrisy, a particular political agenda. This woman wanted to make clear: “I’m not that!”

Here’s a cheery Monday morning excerpt from Richard Rohr’s book, The Wisdom Pattern. He offers this observation of our culture: “The soul, the psyche, and human relationships seem at this point to be destabilizing at an almost exponential rate. Our society is producing very many unhappy and unhealthy people…The postmodern mind forms a deconstructed worldview. It does not know what it is for, as much as it knows what it is against, and what it fears.” This insight struck me not only because of the character of this toxic political season, but also because I had recently been talking with some church leaders about the state of our church.

One priest who grew up in a fundamentalist church said that for much of her life, her religious energy as an Episcopalian had been about defining herself by what she was not. Now in her own parish leadership, she recognized that her church was filled with people who were at the church in a defensive, reactive mode, many deeply wounded by other traditions. I’ve met those folks. Their company includes not only those raised in intense religious environments. I’ve met folks wounded by the fact that they were raised with no religious tradition. And of course, there are way too many examples of those wounded within the Episcopal tradition. So it’s understandable that people define themselves by what they’re not, or what they’re against, or who they are mad at.

In our work with congregations through RenewalWorks, we often find people react negatively to particular religious language, and to the ways religious questioned are framed. We often hear: “That’s not how I speak. That’s not how Episcopalians speak.” One of our coaches, an apt listener, heard this comment and responded: “I understand. So tell me. If that’s not your language, what is your language? How would you put this into your own words?”

We all have to do that work. As we think about our spiritual lives, our beliefs and our practices, especially the ways we put faith to work in the world, how do we describe them positively? How do we affirm as well as renounce? How do we talk about what we believe as well as what we refuse to believe? How do we describe where it is we give our hearts? How do we talk about practices that are meaningful and transformative for us? Maybe you want to sit down this week and jot down a few answers to these questions.

At one point, Jesus pulled his disciples aside, and in perhaps the first example of public opinion polling, he asked: “Who do the people say that I am?” When he’d gotten a few answers from his disciples, with laser like focus he then asked: “And who do you say that I am?” How would you answer that question? What’s your language? What are you for? Who are you for?

On any given day, we can all point to the failures of religious , institutions, traditions and their practitioners. We can easily lapse into the prayer of the Pharisee: Thank God I’m not like that tax collector (i.e., those people). The challenge: How do we think about, talk about and act on the things we believe? How do we do so without being reactive, defensive, judgmental, fearful?

This coming Sunday gives us a clue. Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment. He says it’s all about love, love of God, love of neighbor. Love is our language.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 

Monday Matters (October 12, 2020)

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Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
-Psalm 27:14

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning,

-Psalm 130:5,6

 

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for. We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory. We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God’s footsteps.
Waiting for God is an active, alert – yes, joyful – waiting. As we wait we remember him for whom we are waiting, and as we remember him we create a community ready to welcome him when he comes.
-Henri Nouwen

Patience

O Lord, give me patience and give it to me now.

I confess that has sometimes been the gist of my prayer (a variation on Augustine’s prayer: Give me chastity, but not yet). Patience has been on my mind lately. Maybe yours as well.

These days, each morning I’m reading through the book of the Acts of the Apostles. I noticed this throw-away line. Towards the end of the book, Paul has been arrested in Jerusalem. He awaits a hearing, first with the local authorities and ultimately with Caesar in Rome. He has a hearing with one guy, who listens for a bit, seems to get bored and sends Paul away. It says Paul was sent away to prison for two years before the second hearing was held. Two years. How did he deal with that time of waiting? Didn’t God realize there was important missionary work to be done?

The story of Moses in the book of Exodus tells us that after Moses had to flee Egypt, he went into the wilderness where he became a shepherd. A throw-away line tells us that he did that for forty years. I find myself wondering what Moses was thinking. What am I doing with this ancient near eastern ivy league education, hanging out for forty years, looking after livestock? Then one day he turned aside to converse with a burning bush. But not until the time was right.

Early in the gospel of Luke, we meet Simeon and Anna, two senior citizens who spent their lives in the temple, waiting to see the Messiah, waiting to see how God would act. Faithfully waiting. It sounds like they would have waited forever.

Waiting is a spiritual discipline. Patience is a spiritual virtue. We’re talking fruits of the Spirit. To put it mildly, these days I need more of that virtue to live out that discipline. I suspect we all know about waiting. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for covid restrictions to lift. Waiting to get a call back after an interview. Waiting in line to vote. Waiting for a doctor’s report. Waiting for an election season to pass. Waiting for a paycheck. Waiting for things to stop changing. Waiting for things to start changing.

So what does holy waiting look like? Henri Nouwen indicates that such waiting is not passive, but rather active (see quote above).

So what is that activity? I’ll name five ideas, five that I work on. You can add others. I’d love to hear what they are:

  1. Gratitude: A recognition, a mindfulness of the goodness that is part of the present. Some people make daily lists of those things for which they are grateful. Maybe one thing. Maybe 5. Maybe 100. Some people write daily notes to people to whom they owe a debt of gratitude. There are a lot of ways to do that. When in doubt, recite the General Thanksgiving daily (p. 101 in the Prayer Book).
  2. Trust: an ability to live in the confidence that all will be well, that in the end all will be okay and if it’s not okay it’s not the end.
  3. Confession: Admit the pain of waiting is tough. If you need language for that, God gave us the psalms.
  4. Service: Why do we call a server in a restaurant a waiter?I’m not sure where that comes from but to me one of the ways to navigate my own impatience is to consider opportunities to be of help to someone, to be of service. Those opportunities surround us.
  5. Prayer: The discipline of waiting, the virtue of patience may only be realized with God’s help. Fruits of the Spirit, not fruits of my own spiritual evolution or magnificence. The confession that the anxiety is getting to us, that we’re not sure how to manage it, can open the door to deeper patience.

Waiting can be hard. We all have to do it. Thank God for God’s help, claiming the wisdom of Isaiah who promised that those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:13) Phew.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 

Monday Matters (October 5, 2020)

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St. Paul wrote:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

Jesus said to his disciples:
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11)

 

Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

 

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

-Rabindrath Tagore

A cloud of witnesses

I’m reading a book entitled “The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place.” In it, the author David Sheff tells the story of Jarvis Jay Masters, prisoner in San Quentin, death sentence looming. In confinement, Masters discovered the power of meditation, becoming a Buddhist. He said: “The death penalty saved my life. And gave me life…I never would have meditated. Never would have learned about Buddhism. Never. Never would have been interested.” He described his ceremony of initiation as a Buddhist: “My old self died. The person who was desensitized, numb, dead. And from that death, it’s like I became someone new. I’m becoming someone new.” He went on to be of service to other inmates, finding ways to share what he had learned and somehow in that place, finding joy. The book causes me to consider, wonder, marvel at the witness of folks who discover joy in the darkest places.

It’s the witness of Paul and Silas as described in Acts 16. Tossed into a first century prison (Let your imagination run wild on what that was like!), they spent the night singing hymns and praising God. It’s the witness of Paul in his letter to the Philippians, which we’ve been reading on Sundays. In that letter, written from prison, every other word is joy or rejoice. What gives?

It’s the witness of St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we observed yesterday.  Maybe you’ve participated in a blessing of the animals (Once I blessed a 5 foot iguana, which arrived in a snuggly on the chest of its owner who had come to church on the subway.) or quoted Francis’ beautiful prayer about being an instrument of God’s peace. But what was it about him that one of the memories persisting over the centuries has to do with his sense of joy, while taking on a life of poverty and enduring opposition from many sides? We’re told he censured friars who went about with gloomy faces, exhorting them to cheerful demeanor. When thieves beat him up and threw him in a snowy ditch, he jumped out and joyfully sang praises to God. In a famous exchange with Brother Leo, he describes perfect joy: If we bear injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.

It’s the witness of Nelson Mandela, 27 years in prison, who said: You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the processes of your own mind and feelings. That kind of reflection allowed Mandela to combat forces of institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality.

It’s the witness of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, good friends who laughed a lot, as recorded in “The Book of Joy,” an account of conversations they had in a week together. Each of these men knew the worst that 20th century politics could inflict. Though reflecting different religious traditions, they each exhibit joy. Part of that joy, that equanimity, that peace resulted from the fact that they each spent hours daily in prayer.

It’s the witness of Pope Francis whose first apostolic exhortation was entitled “The Joy of the Gospel.” His first papal homily, on Palm Sunday 2013, began: “Here is the first word I wish to say to you: joy!”

It’s the witness of Jesus who told his disciples that he came to give them abundant life. On the night before he was arrested, tortured and executed, knowing full well what was coming, Jesus told his disciples  that he came to give them joy that was complete.

We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses. They tell us, remind us, show us that joy can come in the darkest places. It comes with expressions of gratitude, quiet time, service, listening. We all know dark places, some more devastating or inexplicable than others. Maybe you’re in one of those places this Monday. Maybe every Monday feels a bit like that. These witnesses remind us that we are not alone in facing darkness. They also let us know that valleys can be places where we glimpse a long, beautiful view that includes a path forward.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, October 7th, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (September 28, 2020)

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Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.
He will make your righteousness as clear as the light and your just dealing as the noonday.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.
Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
Psalm 37:5-9

 

The ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God’s
first love.”

-Jürgen Moltmann from “The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life.”

Trust

Trust is on my mind these days. Apparently, I’m not alone in wondering who to trust, as we grapple with considerable coincident crises, crises of health, economics, racial division and inequity, climate change. Science, politicians, media, election processes, institutional religion, law enforcement are all being questioned, against the background noise of what some call fake news, untruths and alternative facts. We never know what’s around the corner, but Covid-tide is a season of heightened anxiety fueled by uncertainty about what, who and how we can trust.

That has led me to think about all the ways that scripture calls us to trust. Easier said than done. (One of my college friends signed his religion papers with the acronym: SOKOP. Sounds okay on paper). The psalms, in a number of places, offer a variation of the following verse: Put not your trust in rulers or in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. (Psalm 146:3) Maybe you’re thinking about trust these days as well. Apparently, a lot of people are. If so, join me in working through a few questions:

1. Where do you draw strength? Asked another way: What are reliable sources of nourishment and sustenance for the journey? We live in a world offering lots of spiritual junk food, easy to swallow but not what we really need, not ultimately sustaining. We give our hearts to that which does not satisfy our hearts. It’s especially tough when so many Christian leaders reveal the hypocrisy of the church, nothing new under the sun. As one of those church leaders, when I hear the reasonable, verifiable complaint that the church is just filled with hypocrites, all I can say is, “Guilty as charged.” Then I revert to the prayer that both sustains and frightens me: “Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me.” (Psalm 69:7) What would it mean to draw strength from the God who calls us into relationship?

2. Where do you place your hope? Asked another way: In whom do you place hope? The old hymn affirms: We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future. In many ways, we find ourselves in the midst of storms. Life these days feels like those small glass snow domes that get all shook up. We’re waiting for things to settle. Hoping. Jurgen Moltmann based his theology on hope. In a paper called The Spirit of Hope: Theology For A World In Peril, Moltmann wrote (pre-covid): “Terrorist violence, social and economic inequality, and most especially the looming crisis of climate change all contribute to a cultural moment of profound despair.” Moltmann reminds us that Christian faith has much to say in response to a despairing world. In “the eternal yes of the living God,” we affirm the goodness and ongoing purpose of our fragile humanity. What would it mean to embrace the text of the hymn (#665 in the 1982 Hymnal) “All my hope on God is founded,” music written by Herbert Howells after the death of his 9 year-old son?

3. Where do you give your heart? Asked another way: What’s love got to do with it? As our Presiding Bishop reminds us, it all boils down to love. If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. Ultimately our trust is an expression of the heart, an expression of love. As in any committed relationship, love is based on the trust that partners seek the best for each other. They seek to honor each other, with all they are and have. More Moltmann: “God’s love empowers us to love life and resist a culture of death.” What would it mean, in a vindictive season, to let love be our guide in some new and deeper way this week, not giving into fear or fretting but figuring out some way to make it all about love?

As people of faith, we are called to “trust in the Lord with all our hearts, leaning not on our own understanding, confident that God will direct our paths.” (A riff on Proverbs 3:5,6) In case you haven’t picked it up already, I’m finding that challenging. It’s presumptuous of me to suggest a solution, as I navigate a cloud of unknowing. But here’s the answer I’ve decided to go with. I’m going to literally and figuratively take a deep breath and trust that the God of love has the whole world in his hands. And I’m going to try to remember that a life of hope is not always easy. Even more Moltmann: “Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world.” Said another way: All manner of things shall be well, but we may be in for rough sledding before we get there.

On that cheery note, amidst it all, I trust you will know blessing and peace this week. Thanks for thinking this through with me.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, October 7th, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (September 21, 2020)

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The Collect for the Feast of St. Matthew
We thank you, heavenly Father, for the witness of your apostle and evangelist Matthew to the Gospel of your Son our Savior; and we pray that, after his example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 
Matthew 9:9-13
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Follow me

My, it was a fine sermon, a clear call to discipleship, based on the gospel printed above, the gospel chosen for the Feast of St. Matthew (which is today). My compelling preaching was based on the two words Jesus said to Matthew: Follow me. With unbridled homiletic prowess, I made the point that we each are called to a deeper discipleship that goes to our heart and changes our lives. And because I’m such an able communicator, I included in the Sunday bulletin a rather large, unavoidable bookmark with the phrase: Follow Me, printed in bold but elegant font. It was a takeaway that would keep the message of discipleship in front of parishioners, perhaps for the rest of their lives. It was a good morning.

That same evening, my wife and I were invited to a dinner party. We were greeted at the door by the host, a parishioner, who immediately asked if we’d like a drink from the bar. When I said yes, he pulled out the aforementioned bookmark: Follow me. He led me to libation.

I realized that what I had said and what had been heard from the pulpit may not have been the same.

We may have a clear idea of what it means to affiliate with a denomination, or to be a church member. But that is not necessarily the same as thinking about what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Whether it was my host’s appropriation of Jesus’ phrase, or the ways we talk about following someone on social media, we may need to reclaim this word “follow.” Use this feast day to think about what it means for you to follow Jesus, however you are choosing to do that. And let me suggest three things implied in that call.

First, it suggests movement. We can’t stay where we are. As Pope Francis said, there’s no such thing as a stationary Christian. In that suggestion, there’s an indication of another way, perhaps even hope. Matthew didn’t need to continue to be a tax-collector, despised by his own people. Peter didn’t need to continue to be a mediocre fisherman (Note: There is no indication that the disciples who were professional fishermen ever caught a fish without Jesus’ help.) While we may not know where the following will lead, it involves the hope of something better, a more abundant life, a life marked by healing and reconciliation, loving kindness and forgiveness.

Second, it suggests intentionality and purpose. One of my mentors suggests that we could substitute the word intentionality for discipleship. It may seem impulsive, but Matthew got up from his table, perhaps in the middle of tax consultation with a rich client. Other disciples dropped nets, left their businesses and leapt into a new life with Jesus. They made a decision, the road taken. We are faced on a daily basis with choices. Will we choose the way of love, with all that entails? Will we choose that way, even if we’re not sure what it entails?

Finally, it suggests relationship. We don’t follow a creed, a set of rules or guidelines. We follow a person. As Easter people we believe in the mystery that he is very much alive, met in the practice of prayer. He is met in worship, bread and wine conveying his presence. He is met in service to those in need. (As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me. Matthew 25.) That relationship is marked by love and grace, a commitment to showing mercy as mercy has been shown to us. That relationship calls us to learn from him, to imitate him in word and action. We learn as we go, putting faith into practice, becoming more proficient, becoming more Christ-like in the process.

So what does it look like for you to be a follower of Jesus this week?

-Jay Sidebotham

 

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, October 7th, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (September 14, 2020)

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The Collect for the Feast of the Holy Cross

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Mark 8:34

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” 
 

Readings chosen for this feast day:

Philippians 2:5ff

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.

John 12:31-36a

Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

Take up your cross

The historian Eusebius (you all remember him, right?), in his Life of Constantine, tells how the emperor ordered the building of a complex in Jerusalem “on a scale of imperial magnificence,” to set forth as “an object of attraction and veneration to all, the blessed place of our Savior’s resurrection.” Constantine’s shrine included a large basilica for the Liturgy of the Word and a circular church, known as “The Resurrection” for the Liturgy of the Table. Toward one side of the courtyard separating the two buildings, through which worshippers had to pass on their way from Word to Sacrament, the top of Calvary’s hill was visible. In that courtyard, the solemn veneration of the cross took place on Good Friday. The dedication of the buildings was completed on September 14, 335. 1,685 years later, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross on this day, with prayers and scripture readings taking us to the foot of the cross.

In the Collect for the day (see above), we ask for grace to take up our cross. I’m wondering this Monday morning what that means to you. People often talk about crosses they have to bear, sometimes revealing an unattractive teeth-gritting Christianity tinged with victimhood. Their crosses? A crabby relative, an irascible co-worker, any number of challenging life circumstances. We all have these forces in our lives, as suffering is the promise life always keeps. But I have a sense that taking up one’s cross means something different.

As often happens when I puzzle about a phrase that may be familiar but elusive in depth of meaning, I turn to wiser colleagues. In this case I found a homily by Sam Candler, Dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta. A great priest and preacher (and accomplished jazz musician), he preached a few years ago on this phrase “Take up your cross.” Here’s an excerpt:

Are we supposed to follow Jesus so literally that we give up our lives, willingly, to the religious and political authorities of our day, who will then put us to death by execution? That’s what Jesus did. Are we supposed to carry an instrument of torture on our backs to the place of our suffering? Again, that’s what Jesus did.

What was Jesus doing during his last days, that we might be called to follow? One way to consider “the cross” is as a sign of weakness. When Jesus took up his cross, he was acknowledging vulnerability. He was admitting weakness, submitting to power that would take away his life. The cross, for Jesus, represented his exposure to pain and suffering. The cross was his vulnerability.

If so, I suggest that “taking up our cross”means picking up and acknowledging our vulnerability. Most of us spend our lives doing just the opposite. We prepare to go out into the world by building up our strengths. We train and go to school and make money and surround ourselves with good company. We even do good and great things in the world with the strengths that we have worked at.

To “take up our cross,” however, means to lay our strengths aside. It means to lay our “ego strength” aside…Something quite powerful occurs when we do this. Jesus said it like this: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”(Mark 8:35).

In spiritual circles, we often talk about this as surrender, a word I admit I have resisted. It can make me think I am called to be a doormat for Christ. It can tap into that heretical religious tradition that denigrates our worth as children of God. But there is a life giving aspect to this dynamic of surrender. Once, while I was struggling with what it means to surrender, I providentially opened a book by Thomas Merton. He wrote: “Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.”

What does that surrender look like? It unfolds in ways great and small. Wearing a mask in time of pandemic, uncomfortable and annoying as they might be. Setting aside our own agenda, even when we have really important things to do. Honoring another family member, beginning each day asking how I can be of service. Taking a costly stand for justice and peace in a season when injustice is there for all to see. Giving sacrificially to meet the needs of our neighbors.

On this feast day, and in days that follow, might we think about taking up the cross as doing whatever it takes to surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts, and to find new life, resurrected life in the process.

-Jay Sidebotham

 

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, October 7th, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (September 7, 2020)

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The Collect for Labor Day
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

A Reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

 

A reading from the Gospel of Matthew
Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Labor Day

Labor Day is one of the few secular holidays finding its way into the liturgical calendar (along with Independence Day and Thanksgiving). Prayers and readings have been chosen to help us think about our labor, our efforts, our work, our ministry in the place to which God has brought us.

We often say that praying shapes our believing. What we pray molds our attitudes. Prayers also guide our actions. In this time of considerable coincident crises, contending with threats to health, a depleted economy and urgent racial reckoning, the collect for Labor Day, included above, has a lot to say. We ask for guidance in the work we do. We ask to be made mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers and to arouse our concern for those who are out of work. It says we’re in this together.

A political season can trigger (heated) debate about best ways to respond to the challenges we face. But the fact that Labor Day is a feast of the church, finding its place in the liturgical calendar, means that this is not simply a matter of politics. It’s something we do as part of the Jesus movement, part of the way of love. It’s something we do as people of faith, as disciples. That prompts a few questions to think about in the spare time provided on this holiday (not to mention time provided by sheltering in place).

First, the prayer notes that our lives are linked one with another. Whatever work we’re given to do, for pay or as volunteers, is meant for the common good. So let me ask: In what way do you see your life linked to all those who might be struggling these days, with issues of health or economics or race relations? Spend some quiet time asking God to show you that linkage. How will your efforts be dedicated to the common good?

Second, on this day, we hear a portion of a letter from St. Paul (again included above), writing to the Corinthian church. He compares their lives, as individuals and as a community, to a construction project. He talks about their labor in building. He asks them to think about the foundation on which they build. So let me ask: As you think about the life you are building, what’s the foundation? What does it mean to you to build on the foundation that is Jesus Christ? What about Jesus is foundational for you?

Finally, on this day, we’re invited to read an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount (again, see above). Jesus challenges his listeners to think about what they value, what they treasure. In words that always make me stop and think, words we hear on Ash Wednesday, he tells them: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. That verse prompted one of the desert fathers to issue this related challenge: Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart. So let me ask: Where are you giving your heart these days? In the quiet of this Labor Day, think about what it is you treasure. What are the ways that we can treasure, we can value and honor the common good, the whole human family?

The times in which we live can drive us into isolated corners. The politics of the day encourage tribalism and division. It’s often hard to see the common good. Jesus calls us to another way, the way of love. How do you hear that call on this holiday, this holy day?

-Jay Sidebotham

 

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, September 9, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (August 31, 2020)

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To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.
-Henri Nouwen
There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something.
-J.R.R.Tolkien
Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.
-Tod Bolsinger

Listening & Looking

It wouldn’t have happened without Zoom. Earlier this month, I joined a conversation with clergy gathered from places as far-flung as Hawaii and Scotland and North Carolina. Our conversation focused on how we do church these days, given coincident crises, especially a health crisis that precludes the kind of church gatherings that have been going on for centuries. In prep for the call, we read a short book by Tod Bolsinger entitled: Leadership For A Time Of Pandemic. Good stuff. You may or may not think of yourselves as a leader, spiritual or otherwise, but there are lessons for all of us as we think about how we navigate extraordinary times.

The springboard for this latest work is a book he wrote a few years ago called Canoeing the Mountains. That book takes as guiding metaphor the search of Lewis and Clark for a northwest passage. They followed the Missouri River to its source and assumed an easy connection with a river that would then empty into the Pacific. Excellent plan. Except when they got to the end of the Missouri, they encountered hundreds of miles of mountains. Canoeing skills were not going to help. They needed to think differently about the next steps.

Sound familiar? The pandemic presents a similar challenge. The advent of the fall season marked by social distancing, going back to school, new ways to work, many unable to work, churches and other organizations trying to begin again, making it up as they go along, all indicate a new normal. Old ways may never come back. They may no longer be helpful.

It’s easy to get bummed out about what we’ve lost. Tod Bolsinger says that people don’t resist change. They resist loss. Too many are grieving these days, as we approach 200,000 dead from this virus in our nation, yet another black man killed by police, economic security dissipating. We long for days when we can gather in church or school or our favorite crowded restaurant. As we confront all that longing and loss, matters great and small, can we imagine a new thing unfolding, a new thing God has for us?

Tod Bolsinger invites two practices for leaders. I include all of you in that group, if only that you are leading your own life this Monday. I hope the practices might be helpful. The two practices: listening and looking. (Alliteration strikes again.)

What does it mean to practice listening? Henri Nouwen, uber-pastor, described listening as the highest form of hospitality. Mr. Bolsinger describes it as paying attention to the longing and losses of people in our care, again, noting that we all deal with the kinds of loss that trigger resistance to growth and change. Anxious voices can keep us from hearing longing and losses. In light of that, we are called to be attuned to two things at once: to the pain of the world and to the longing and losses of our people.

And we listen to God. Scripture gives us ways to do that. Abraham was called to a land he would be shown. He listened and left home (Genesis 12). Moses paid attention to a burning bush bringing liberation (Exodus 3). Elijah heard a still small voice (I Kings 19). More Bolsinger wisdom: Such listening leads to a new way of acting. We are surrounded by so much noise it’s hard to hear God. That’s where spiritual disciplines can help. It may be creating a daily quiet time. It may be time in nature. It may be meditation on a piece of scripture. It may be reading scripture with others. In this political season, Tod Bolsinger’s advises the practice of communal meals, captured in the slogan:  “Making America Dinner Again”

The second practice is looking. Again, that calls for doing two things at once. First, it involves looking at the current moment from a bit of a distance. Tod Bolsinger describes it as getting up on the balcony, where one can gain perspective lost once we’re on the dance floor. We need to not only see what’s happening in the moment (i.e., on the dance floor). We need to take the broader view, the longer view. Both are important. We need to be in the game. We have to get some distance, as we seek a broader view, a longer view. Maybe that’s what hope is all about.

Again, scripture gives us ways to do that.  From the moment of creation, there was light. The psalmist prays: Open my eyes that I may behold the wonders of your law. Jesus came to be the light of the world. So many of his miracles involved healing of blindness. As God regards us with unconditional love, so we are to look that same way at the world and at all our neighbors. And there’s always the practice of God-sightings, noticing each day where you’ve seen God at work.

Blessings in this new season. As you begin, how will you listen and look this Monday, this week? Lead on.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
—> we’re changing days! RW:Connect will now be on the 1st Wednesday of the month
Next call:  Wednesday, September 9, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference
 

Monday Matters (August 24, 2020)

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Singing a song of the saints of God
There are hundreds of thousands still; The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church or in trains or in shops or at tea; For the Saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.

 

John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
 
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote-Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 
 
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. 
 
“Come and see,” said Philip.
 
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
 
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
 
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
 
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

St. Bartholomew

For a number of years, I served at a church named St. Bartholomew’s. I’m reminded of that church today, the Feast of St. Bartholomew. Some churches make a big deal about the saint for which the church is named. At St. Bart’s, we didn’t make much of the observance. Partly because it fell at the end of August when many of our folks (including clergy) were on vacation. We also downplayed the day, because the truth is we don’t know a lot about this saint.

There’s a hymn created for use on saint’s days. It has an intro and closing stanza, but then some stanzas pertinent to any  number of saints. You can plug in that stanza for your feast day. Customized hymn. Great idea. Here’s the stanza for St. Bartholomew:

Praise for the blest Nathaniel, surnamed Bartholomew;
We know not his achievements but know that he was true,
For he at the Ascension was an apostle still
May we discern your presence and seek, like him, your will.

I always get a chuckle out of this stanza, not only because the writer found a rhyme for Bartholomew. It essentially says that we don’t know anything about this guy, but because he gets mentioned in the gospels, we assume he was a pretty good guy. Apart from the rather gruesome way that he was martyred (I’m going to let you look that up on your own), we find almost no other information about Bartholomew in scripture.

As the hymn suggests (and some scholars doubt) Bartholomew and a character named Nathaniel may be one and the same. What we know about Nathaniel comes from the first chapter of John’s gospel (see column on the left). Jesus calls his first disciples and in the process, has an exchange with Nathaniel. Nathaniel’s friend, Philip, is all excited about meeting Jesus, the one promised by Moses and the prophets. He tells Nathaniel about Jesus of Nazareth. Nathaniel responds: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Jesus soon meets Nathaniel and commends him for being a straight shooter.

Kudos to Nathaniel for his freedom to ask questions, bordering on impertinence. In that regard, he reminds me of many Episcopalians. I love that his story is preserved in scripture. He models honest, holy conversations. And he discovered what we all must learn: God can handle our hard questions, our skepticism. We need not try to hide or disguise them, as if God didn’t know we had them.

Then join me in thinking about that question: Can anything good come from Nazareth? How do you translate that question into your own context?  I suspect we all find it easy to put people into categories, to help us make sense of the world. We all have preconceived notions of how God can work, or what kind of people God can use. We are tempted to limit that group. We may be totally surprised by who might be our teachers, our guides. I’ve had Episcopalians look down their noses at folks from other denominations, even those that are clearly attracting many people. I’ve had evangelicals tell me that Episcopalians don’t love Jesus as much as they do. We may be inclined to look in the mirror and wonder: Can anything good come out of me, out of my life? Can God work in my shambles of a life?

Let’s let Jesus answer. He said that children could be our teachers. He noted that a hated Roman centurion had more faith than anyone he had met in Israel. He indicated that the most educated religious scholars of his day were blind guides. He commended a foreign woman for audacious faith. He held up despised lepers as models of gratitude. He told a thief on the cross that he would join him in paradise.

And then there’s this quiet, unsung saint, Bartholomew or Nathaniel or whoever he was. He teaches us that God’s saving work for all people for all time can begin in podunk, backwater towns. It can happen through the most unlikely people.

Even you and me. Celebrate that this Monday. Live into it.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

 


RenewalWorks: Connect
 
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
 
Next call:  Wednesday, September 9, 7pm EDT
Join us via Zoom video conference